Two weeks ago my neighborhood in lower Manhattan was evacuated because of Hurricane Irene. This week we’re in a “frozen zone” due to security concerns related to the 10th anniversary of 9/11. There are police everywhere. Mayor Bloomberg has told the city that there has been “noise” of a possible car bomb attack. And our building issued us letters to carry that identify us as local residents. All these things bring me back to the terrible day in 2001.
On the morning of 9/11, Little Airplane’s one room office in Tribeca was just six blocks away from the World Trade Center. I lived in the East Village at the time, and I was on my way to work when someone in my elevator told me what had happened. I went downstairs to the juice bar and watched the towers burn on TV. I had just one employee at the time, and I went back home and called her and told her not to come in. I was on the phone when the towers fell.
For the next few weeks, Tribeca was sealed off at Canal Street. There were police barricades and U.S. Army Humvees everywhere. I had to talk to several different soldiers at several different checkpoints before one would allow me access to my office. We were in the middle of editing our only job at Little Airplane, some short live-action films for Sesame Street. The smell in the neighborhood was awful and, we later learned, highly toxic. It was a mixture of dust from the fallen buildings, pulverized computers, and smoke from the remains of those who could not get out.
Everyone assumed that I would leave Tribeca but I felt I couldn’t leave. And a few people told me that I should change the name of the company now that airplanes had a very different meaning than they did before 9/11. But I didn’t want to change the name. I didn’t want to do anything differently than I had before because I was very frightened and, whenever I am frightened, I tend to rely on my daily routines to help me through. My one employee quit because she read online that the air quality was unsafe.
In the months following 9/11, there was no new work to be had. Most of the restaurants and shops in Lower Manhattan were closed. There was a feeling that we were all living and working in a cemetery. Everyone was sad and stunned, and meetings of any kind seemed frivolous. On the posts of most street corners were pictures of people’s family members who were still missing. On the pictures were handwritten pleas to anyone who might know anything.
I would sit in my small office on my blue Ikea couch for hours. The phone would not ring. I knew that this is what it must feel like to be going out of business. Most of the small start-ups in my building were already gone and I was certain that I was next. But then, one night, something shifted inside of me that I will try to explain to you.
For years, I had wanted to pitch my own shows but I had always been too afraid to do so. I am a shy person and I found any sort of pitch meeting to be really difficult. As a company, we had survived mostly by doing small writing and production service jobs, but those had stopped coming in. Alone in my office that night, I realized that if Little Airplane was going to survive, I had to start pitching, regardless of how hard this might be for me. And, if nobody took my shows, at least I would know that I had gone down swinging. Compared to the fear that I felt of another attack, or of the mysterious envelopes of anthrax that were being sent around the city, my fear of pitching felt comparatively small and manageable.
I can’t say that things turned around quickly for the company but, as the months went by, we did begin to get some small commissions for our original show ideas. The trauma of 9/11 changed all of us in different ways. In my case, it gave me a deeper appreciation of those I love, a deeper loyalty to my injured city and, lastly, the courage to make and share my own work. I read once that there are some types of seeds that only open during the worst kinds of forest fires. I have no doubt that this is true.